Putting aside analysis, calculation and any semblance of substantive thought, President Donald Trump once more bounced off intuition in calling for a big-time tariff on Mexico. The purpose? To get Mexico to help more with the immigration flood from Central America. The possible consequences if he follows through? Economic punishment on both sides of a border even more in crisis.
Trump apparently doesn’t get any of this, or the fact that the move, if carried out, could rip apart relations with fellow Republicans in Congress, further inspirit impeachment enthusiasts, help undo his foremost achievement of economic flourishing and reduce his chance of re-election in 2020.
What he did was trust his gut. He talks frequently about how he does just that, as he must have in his cockeyed governmental shutdown. To him, an automatic, impulsive gut is more reliable than a rational, deliberative brain that knows what it doesn’t know, and here, in my view, is his chief fault as president.
A terrific book on the subject is “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman, a cognitive scientist who tells us that, yes, intuition can tie our shoes and handle a mighty list of everyday tasks. But if an issue is complicated, such as requiring the multiplication of two six-figure numbers, you are going to have to slow down enough to do the math. Kahneman gives an engaging example of how knee jerks in complicated situations come in a distant second to actual, more prolonged, careful, step-by-step thought.
Suppose you are told that the combined cost of a bat and baseball is $1.10 and are then told that the bat cost $1 more than the baseball. The question is how much did the baseball cost, and the quick, intuitive answer in various quiz exercises has been 10 cents. Wrong. If the baseball cost 10 cents, the bat would be just 90 cents more expensive. If the ball cost a nickel, the bat would cost $1.05, which is a dollar more than the baseball.
Trump would insist after hearing all of that that the bat still cost $1 more than the baseball and add that Central American immigrants are pouring through Mexico and Mexico could stop it but won’t and that the threat of ruination will bring them around. The fact is that Mexico has been doing quite a bit, believe it or not. It might not have the means to do much more unless, possibly, Trump came up with a plan in which the United States worked with them.
Minus an agreement, Trump says we could soon have a 5% tariff that could climb to 25% and be economically devastating for this nation from which we imported $346 billion worth of goods in 2018. That could lead to renewed mass immigration from Mexico that has lately slowed down to nothing much. Our auto manufacturers meanwhile would be slammed to the ground and the cost to our own consumers could be something like $100 billion.
Of course, some kind of agreement may be reached even by the time this column appears in print and Trump could look like the winner. But even then his move would have shown no respect for the trade treaty he negotiated with Mexico and Canada and could make China and others more wary in trade negotiations with the administration. Our friends will be less friendly.
Too often, Trump does not listen to his best advisers who have helped lead him to grand accomplishments and are surely saying he should now go after the Democrats instead of the Mexicans. They are abetting human misery because of not providing more money for housing and child care at the border, will not change a derelict asylum law or even provide enough border patrol agents.
Outsmart them. Understand the cost of the bat is $1.05.
Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.